AGULA: A Swiss-Mongolian Music Exchange Project

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AGULA: A Swiss-Mongolian Music Exchange Project (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

At first glance, AGULA: A Swiss-Mongolian Music Exchange Project, with its academic title and cover art, may give the appearance of being just another experiment in world music fusion, but believe you me—this is one album definitely not to be overlooked.

I haven’t been able to stop listening to AGULA, a gorgeous, multi-layered collaboration between the American-born, Swiss double bassist-led Heiri Känzig Quintet and Ulaanbaatar’s Arga Bileg ethno-jazz band. The latter are an 11-member collective of musicians and dancers who straddle both contemporary jazz and traditional Mongolian folk practices. Känzig is a longtime member of the Vienna Art Orchestra, who has also toured and recorded with countless artists for Blue Note, Verve, ACT, and Virgin, flexing his fingers between classical, jazz and world music.

AGULA - Arga Bileg
Arga Bileg’s Davaazorig Altangerel (center) singing khöömii with Batzaya Khadhuu (L) on morin khuur and Munkhtogtokh Ochirkhuyag (R) on yatga.

With original compositions by both Känzig and Arga Bileg composer Purevsukh Tyeliman, what would have been an otherwise dauntingly impossible project juxtaposing Mongolian khöömii bi-tonal throat singing with western voices, the traditional morin khuur (horse head fiddles) and yatga (plucked zither) with piano, double bass, accordion, horn, flugelhorn, drums and percussion—clearly, no easy feat—is absolute perfection. AGULA’s sound is exquisite in its intricacies and not at all contrived in the way that skeptics—like me—usually think.

Heiri Känzig
Double bassist Heiri Känzig.

This new release’s most unusual musical partnership was the result of a celebration last year marking the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries, as Switzerland was the very first to become Mongolia’s non-socialist trading partner back in 1964. And in the past ten years, the Swiss Development Cooperation Agency has played a significant role in supporting the country’s arts and culture program, sponsoring projects like AGULA, in partnership with the Arts Council of Mongolia.

The title, AGULA, takes its name from an old Mongolian term for the word ‘mountain,’ a geographical feature that both countries share in common: the Altai (14,783ft.); and the Alps (15,203ft.). While these two countries may seem worlds apart from one another, they have certainly proved again that the universal language of music can transcend any and all language and cultural boundaries.

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Heiri Känzig Quintet & Mongolia’s Arga Bileg ethno-jazz band.

The Heiri Känzig Quintet and Arga Bileg ethno-jazz band create audio alchemy on AGULA, evoking Mongolia’s nomadic tradition and vast grasslands.

The making of AGULA: A Swiss-Mongolian Music Exchange Project.

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